A Conversation With...Robert Segarini
When hang time with Robert (Bob) Segarini presents itself – get in line. Between verbal exchanges about what Segarini sees in a dying and self-congratulatory music industry focused on minutia, Robert’s thoughts are occasion for wonderment and hilarity. That discovery of a golden recorded gem of significant proportion – a 45rpm, an LP, a concert, a neglected artist swallowed down an industry black hole and spewed out the backside – Robert will find, isolate and make us aware. Robert dropped by The Bill King Show at CIUT 89.5 FM.
Bill King: You finally arrived, and I appreciate this, Robert.
Robert Segarini: You better.
B.K: Just back from Moose Jaw?
R.S: With a banjo on my knee and I had to sell it.
B.K: You look primed for a rest home.
R.S: I probably am, but I refuse to rest. To clarify, a trip that usually takes me thirty-five minutes took me an hour and twenty-two minutes.
B.K: Is that a record?
R.S: Thank you, snow. Yeah, the snow. I don't know. I've never been up this early in the morning in my life except to go to bed.
B.K: You’ve witnessed snow in Stockton, California?
R.S: No. We used to drive to a little town called Long Barn in the Sierra Nevada foothills to see snow, then go home and put on my shorts and mow the lawn.
Stockton is in Northern California, 80 miles directly east of San Francisco, and to see snow my mom and dad, me and the dog (Spotty) would dive into Dad's old '36 Chevy and drive 40 minutes up into the Sierra Nevadas and play in the snow, have a cocoa and then go home and go swimming.
B.K: That must have been cool.
R.S: I had an extraordinary youth. My adulthood wasn’t anywhere near as much fun.
B.K: I didn’t know about your beginnings in California - I thought it all began on Yonge Street.
R.S: Nobody grows up on Yonge Street - you get older there. I was born in San Francisco to people that I guess were overburdened with children and put me up for adoption. That's an exciting story. Back in those days, in the late Jurassic period, they tried to match you up with suitable adoptive parents. My foster dad was from the same little village outside of Genoa, Italy, as my actual family. Six months after I was born, I was adopted and moved to Stockton, California, the gateway to lost dreams and hope.
Stockton is the agricultural center of California in the San Joaquin Valley. We are the asparagus capital of the world.
It was an incredible time and an incredible place to grow up.
B.K: I can vividly recall those towns south of Los Angeles and the orange groves.
R.S: Los Angeles is an area not a part of California. There's a gap between San Diego and Bakersfield containing San Luis Obispo, Santa Barbara – a bunch of other wonderful places, but in this gap, there is also a place called Los Angeles. We're not quite sure who they belong to, maybe Mexico, we're not sure. Possibly Venezuela. But it is a place that is full of people from Manitoba, Utah, Arkansas, Delaware, and France. They are not only there to have a free orange (because they grow wild in the streets) but to become celebrities and famous and popular and wealthy. It’s 10 million people from all over the world there to chase the dragon as it were.
B.K: Did you find music or did music find you?
R.S: My family had no musical inclinations in the least. My mom had a vast collection of 78s she had collected over the years. My dad whistled Cielito Lindo (an old Mexican folk song), and his favourite was Al Jolson's Toot Toot, Tootsie Goodbye.
B.K: He must have known my dad. Yeah. That was a kind of a “go-to” song between men of a certain age.
R.S: My dad worked twenty hours a day and slept for two and a half - a very hard-working blue-collar self-made man who never finished eighth grade. The kind of guy who quit school to go to work. He and his three brothers supported the family after they moved from Italy to Northern California. He was three years old when they made a move and a wonderful guy but musical; not really.
My mother was very supportive. I tap-danced from the time I was two until I was five, mostly to Shine on Harvest Moon - did a lot of county fairs and church functions. I took up the accordion at gunpoint for my dad. It's an Italian rite of passage.
Accordion from five until twelve; then my uncle (Elbert Bidwell), at the time the secretary-treasurer of the local American Federation of Musicians, gifted me with an AFM card and a Student Prince acoustic guitar from Sears and that of course, ruined my life - and here I am.
The first album I ever did was for RCA. It was a band called Family Tree, and the album was called Miss Butters. The Joffrey Ballet, when they were still in Seattle, wanted to turn it into a ballet, but when they left Seattle and moved to New York their new owners blew off the deal.
When my dad passed away, we (my cousins and other family members) sat at the kitchen table and told stories about him. Many I had never heard. For example, I found this out about him. He was always kind of disgruntled with me because I didn't go into the family produce - grocery business like the rest of the second generation of Segarinis. And even when it was evident that I had chosen music over “grocerying,” he never had anything to say except, "Don't you ever sleep?" and "Get a haircut."
When my first band rehearsed at our house, he slept through our rehearsals. He could sleep through anything. My dad slept through a two-car collision at the corner where our home was located that caused a tire to bounce off the front of the house just under the big bay window in the living room right next to his Barcalounger, shaking the whole house. Even the ensuing sirens failed to wake him up.
We used to deliver groceries to dozens of restaurants and sorority and fraternity houses at the University of Pacific, starting at four or five in the morning - him at the wheel of the truck and me sitting on a 100-pound sack of onions or potatoes, terrified that one of my friends would see me in the back of the pickup.
Anyway, years later, I was living in Los Angeles when the Family Tree album was released, and RCA had sent a box (25) of records to my parent’s house, thinking that was still my address. My father went around to all the restaurants with the albums and told the owners to put them on their jukeboxes. They said, "John, the jukebox only holds singles, and that's an album," and my dad would say, “I don’t care, put it on there anyway."
B.K: He could have been one of the biggest promo men on the coast.
R.S: He could have done very well. Delivering produce with my dad came with a perk. We always had lunch at whichever restaurant we finished our rounds at, and I don't think my dad ever had to pay because he never lost at Liars Dice, a game all bartenders played with customers or customers played with each other everywhere. My dad would always make the same bet - double or nothing for lunch. I never saw him lose.
I learned my drinking prowess from my father. He didn't drink that much, but he drank regularly, and I'm the same way.
B.K: We both have Italian heritage.
B.K: Michelone – Pennsylvania Italians – farming.
R.S: Michelone? There's a vowel at the end of your name, and it validates your Italian heritage. I immediately trust you.
B.K: I don’t know how to explain the music thing when both sides of the family were farmers.
R.S: Being a spectacular keyboard player, I would assume you played the accordion at one point or another in your life.
B.K: My dad was not Italian.
R.S: You dodged the bullet.
B.K: That instrument wasn’t entering the house.
R.S: From the time I was five and started playing on my first twelve-button bass accordion until I graduated from the gigantic hundred and twenty-eight bass button monstrosity that damn near outweighed me. My mother loved to cook (which gave me my love of cooking) and threw a lot of dinner parties. My dad would trot me out after dinner, and I’d play and get silver dollars and fifty-cent pieces and tousled hair, and now and then my grandfather and my uncle for some insane reason would slip me five bucks. I guess I was paid off. His way of saying, "Go back to your room."
B.K: Dad would make an announcement, “The boys are about to perform,” and we’d say, what? Good people from church would drop by, and he’d call, “Toot Toot Tootsie,” strap on the guitar, then play five beats to the bar. It’s like that gig with Chuck Berry.
R.S: Chuck Berry is the most famous one, as you know. Off he goes – no one ever knew the key. You had to chase after him. It sounds like we had similar backgrounds as cheap entertainment as children.
B.K: You’re a terrific writer and spend hours writing and chronicling a lot of what goes on the music industry. What writers turn you on?
R.S: How far back do you want me to go? As far as writing goes, I was always a reader - a voracious reader. I started reading very young – age two, probably, and I was also listening to the radio from the moment I was adopted. It got me to sleep at night. I got Superman and Jack Benny on TV, and all the rest of that stuff as well as the music. I learned to read in the third grade, and I never looked back. I used to do like 300 book reports a year. I was a Heinlein fan and Arthur C. Clarke but also a huge fan of the Oz books - L. Frank Baum and Lewis Carroll and the rest of them. I read a lot, and I and I wrote a lot. And then I started writing music when I was thirteen, and the inspiration for that was Buddy Holly and The Everly Brothers, but before and during that, I was more impacted by “doo-wop” music and Glenn Miller big bands. Doo-wop, especially anything on the Gee label, I would buy unheard.
I grew up into more of an R and B thing. The first song I wrote was in the eighth grade called Juvenile Delinquent. I also wrote a song called Susan about the girl who was a couple of years older than me and lived across the street that I had a massive crush on. I recorded it when I was 13 or 14. One of the two acetates made was obtained by the friend of a friend in Stockton, at an estate sale, and it's now in my possession. I was trying to be Dion & the Belmonts.
As far as writing prose goes or writing about all the crap I've been through or done or caused - I grew up reading Ralph Gleason and Herb Caen. Ralph was a music critic who started as a big band guy and graduated to jazz, then rock.
My Uncle Elbert got me into the AF of M and took me to San Francisco to the Blackhawk and The Purple Onion to see Billie Holiday, Miles Davis, and so many others. I was eleven and twelve.
The clubs had what was called a ‘green room’ named after the old green-glass Coca-Cola bottles, and if you were with an adult, you could be there underage. I saw Earl Fatha Hines. I saw Erroll Garner. I saw all the greats, ALL of them, including Mose Allison who sang Don't Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me with no vibrato – Parchment Farm and Seventh Son. This early education led me to re-discover Mose Allison in 1976, when he released my favourite of his to this day, Your Mind is on Vacation (But Your Mouth is Workin' Overtime).
Ralph Gleason was a connective tissue between me and that music when I wasn't fortunate enough to go with my uncle to see one of these artists. I read Ralph voraciously, and I read Herb Caen religiously because he just kept San Francisco alive and I loved San Francisco - my second favourite city on earth - Toronto is the first for the same reasons I love San Francisco: music and food. I read them faithfully, and then when Rolling Stone came out, I never missed an issue.
I'll never forget this; the first issue had a picture of Lennon on the cover, and it folded in half, and it was like a newspaper. There was a big picture, half the front page, of John in makeup for How I Won the War. It was all about John Lennon, and it wasn't Beatles stuff. It was like how does he put his pants on? Focused on him and the movie, not what’s your favourite colour? What's your favourite food, like those teen magazines. So, you read Rolling Stone cover to cover, and that got me into reading a lot of music magazines.
B.K: Hunter S. Thompson!
R.S: Never missed his articles. But when you come to that kind of gonzo reportage, I was more into it a year and a half later.
Lester Bangs, Dave Marsh, and Ben Edmonds were excellent friends and Al Neister, who lives here in Toronto. They were part of the Creem family and lived together in Walled Lake just outside of Detroit. Oh, the stories I have; but those guys are who made me interested in doing a little bit of archaeology and reporting on what was going on around me. But I never acted on it any more than I worked on the fact that I was fascinated by radio at an early age.
I used to listen to this guy at night, Denny Kerwin. His show was called The Denny Kerwin Soiree on K-Joy in Stockton. And when I was 12 or 13 years old, I would sneak out of the house around midnight when he went on air, and I would get on my bicycle and I would get coffee and pedal to KJOYs studio, at the corner of Weber and Eldorado in the Hotel Stockton. You could see the foot and vehicle traffic right outside because the studio had the floor to ceiling bay windows and was on the corner of the Hotel Stockton.
I would sit in a booth with him until 3 in the morning and watch him spin records. I'd leave with all the deejay copies of the 45s stacked up in the music director's office Denny would give me, which were usually junk, but now and then there would be a good one. But it never occurred to me to go into radio, ever.
B.K: Was Q-107 your first radio gig?
R.S: CHUM-FM was my first radio gig, thanks to a guy named Warren Cosford.
The Segarini Band had done a simulcast-on City TV and CHUM-FM, and I had done some voiceover stuff for some of the other concerts that they broadcast, like Motorhead. I had just let my band go and was finishing up with David Bendeth of all people – Paul DeLong - what a band that was with John Cleveland Hughes - we were so good. I’ll tell you about The Monks tour sometime off-mic.
I was sitting around my kitchen table with Cameron Carpenter, a very dear friend back then, and the phone rang, and the voice said, “Hi, I’m Warren Cosford, and I want to know if you would wish to come in and be a disc jockey at CHUM FM.' I said something extraordinarily rude and hung up on him because I thought it was a joke.
I had written this big article in the Toronto Star newspaper that Peter Goddard had made the whole front page of the Entertainment Section of the Toronto Star, basically denouncing radio for not playing punk and new wave stuff and not encouraging local bands, like radio stations eventually did, and did beautifully, giving me and so many others a career, but at the time, I thought it was a joke. He called back, Thank God. So, I got into the radio quite by accident, I just answered the phone.
B.K: You remained at CHUM. How long?
R.S: It was over six months, and I got fired for having Motorhead in for an interview. Then two of them stayed with me for a week after. We were supposed to do a ten-minute interview and we ended up doing a whole show. They used to put these little red dots - ‘stick em’ - on all the tracks on the LP you couldn't play, right. We were taking those off and playing a lot of race records. Played a lot of Little Richard, some King and Federal label artists, all the good stuff that was in the library but never played. Nobody was doing it then. It was a great three hours of radio.
As far as writing goes, like being a DJ, it never occurred to me. It never occurred to me to write prose about music, or about my life, but then, out of the blue, David Farrell, who you know and work with, called Greg Simpson (another mutual friend of ours) and asked Greg, who had been a writer in his past, to write a column for the first incarnation of FYI Music. Greg didn't want to do it, so he suggested David, who used to be my neighbour who I've known forever and he called me up, and I said, “I don't know how to do it, so he said write about your life” - so I did. I did that for two or three years.
I wrote three columns a week. Now, I have trouble doing one. It's like everything else - the more you do it, the better you get at it.
Now, I don't consider myself an excellent writer because I read, and I know my punctuation and grammar are not great. I write the same way I do radio. I write like I talk because it's connective. That’s what I've always enjoyed reading, so that's what I write. When (an earlier edition of) FYI folded, I just kept writing and started my little blog called Don't Believe a Word I Say. I have other writers and a rotating bunch with five core writers and myself; wonderful people: Frank Gutch Junior, Cam Carpenter, the incredible Doug Thompson, and a guy named Daryl Vickers who lives in Pasadena California. He was the head writer for The Johnny Carson Tonight Show for the last three years it was on the air and the eight years before that, plus he’s worked with every significant comedian star you've ever heard. He's written a lot of the iconic jokes you and I tell. I was blown away when I found out he had written some of the greatest jokes and one-liners out there. He's originally from Oshawa of all places. And so, yeah - I write - and it's what keeps me busy and happy, but there's no money. Everybody does it to learn and for experience, and it’s a labour of love for all of us.
B.K: Those are the people who have something to say.
R.S: This is why the “Old School of Everything” is dying. Because the people that run things don't understand that things have changed - they're not changing. THINGS changed two decades ago. And the biggest mistake in our related fields was the murder of Napster by the people who should have thrown money at it and realized it was the new distribution system, not only for music but for everything.
The two years that Napster was running were the two years the most CDs sold. Then sales started to go downhill when people could no longer hear the music before they bought it - the industry destroyed itself. It's the slowest murder/suicide in the history of the world.
Major record labels and that whole paradigm will always exist, but they don't make music now. They manufacture a product for the formats of the existing radio stations who also no longer play anything other than what their tight formats allow. They play format fodder for people who want the more and familiar background and party music.
B.K: Nothing moves me like going back and find some form of roots music - I don't care what it is, I want to hear the first thing that was done by somebody, and it always moves me.
R.S: You are an archaeologist. I also spend most of my time hunting artists and music both overlooked in the past and current. I'm in front of the computer a good eighteen hours a day wrestling with Word Press, trying to get the columns out and editing and stuff, but while I'm there every time I take a break, I'm looking for new things. I go to places where it may be.
The sad truth is, to be financially successful and popular, you have to hit the median or 'mediocrity' area. You must give the majority what they want and please as many people as possible to receive the most significant return. Generally, that has always compromised art in favour of commerce. We're only blessed every once in a while with a perfect storm that creates a Sinatra, a Presley, or a Beatles, or those who connect like James Brown or others who not only become popular and prosperous financially, but are exceptional, unique, and creative.
BK: Here’s a good question before we end. A friend of mine from high school texted me a message today saying with all that happened in Ferguson, Missouri, and what’s going down in the states with racial profiling, is there anybody out there like a Dylan or Gil Scott-Heron delivering a message that unites all of us.
R.S: He asked the wrong question. It should have been, "Why haven't I found the people that are addressing these problems?" They're out there, in the local bars and venues, on the street corners. But they are not on the radio. All you have to do is leave your house.